"To me, the most important experience you take away from my work is the story.  I’m providing you with clues to a narrative, telling a story with minute details.  There are no people in these scenes, but so much of what is there are the things people have left behind — the graffiti, the trash, tips on a counter, a half-eaten hamburger.  The real impact of my work is not in how small everything is but in the stories these small things tell."

Alan Wolfson


  The following is a transcript of an interview conducted in the artist’s studio by writer Julia Rubiner in March of 2006.  
Is there anything in your background that prefigured you doing this work?
My father worked as a commercial artist; he did mostly lettering, sign painting and graphics.  I think if times had been different, if he hadn’t been raising a family, he would have just done his own work.  He liked to paint when he had the time; he did mostly seascapes.  And the last few years of my mother’s life, when she was in a home, she took art classes.  She took up painting at age 80 and was pretty good at it.  A lot of the technical stuff I do now I learned from my father.  He taught me how to use tools.
Were you involved in art as a kid?
I was always building something.  I used to build things in cardboard boxes.  You know those projects they give you in school — you build little things in shoeboxes?  That’s essentially what I’m still doing; I just kind of got carried away with it.  A lot of the kids hated doing those, so they used to ask me to do them for them.  I remember having to build the grocery store, the butcher shop and the police station.  I don’t ever recall being assigned the Times Square porno theater or the sleazy hotel room.  So I guess it’s fair to say my subject matter has evolved over time.
Did you have any formal art training back then?
My parents sent me to art classes for kids at the Brooklyn Museum and Pratt Institute.  We used to go to the Greenwich Village Art Show — my father had artist friends who showed there.  I grew up going to museums with my parents and then when I was old enough, I would go by myself.
So you had a feel for the culture of the city beyond your neighborhood.
Yeah, and by the time I was 10, I could get on the subway by myself.  I would go into the city all the time.  In my work, I’m attracted to the stuff about the city I remember from when I was growing up, that kind of architecture.  I grew up in the ‘50s, so you’d see a lot of new construction from that period but also a lot of buildings from the ‘40s and earlier.
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
The Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights areas of Brooklyn.
Did you have good arts education at school?
The schools I went to were pretty bad, probably some of the worst in the city at that time.  Their curriculum wasn’t very heavy on the arts.  When I was about 15, my parents finally moved us out to the suburbs, but I wanted to kill myself living in suburbia.  It was deadly boring, and it was so far away from everything I was interested in; to get into Manhattan you had to walk miles to the subway, and then it was a good hour ride.  I graduated from high school when I was 16.  I skipped 8th grade.  It was survival — one year less my life was on the line in that junior high school.
What did you do after you graduated?
I commuted to a job as a stock boy in a department store in the city and went to night school.  I took liberal arts and business classes.  When I was around 18, they promoted me to being in charge of all the stock boys in the store, but I quickly realized that the world of retailing wasn’t for me.  Then the draft caught up with me.  It didn’t take long in the military to realize that the world of retailing wasn’t so bad after all.
Were you doing artistic work at that time?
I’ve pretty much always done this as a hobby.  Of course my time spent in the military put an end to that.
When did it become more than a hobby?
After I got out of the service, I moved to Berkeley and took art classes at a community college.  I got involved working on theater productions, designing and building sets.  They still had the GI Bill at that point.  I’d gotten an associate’s degree in theater arts, which had required some art history and fine-arts training, so I went back to school at Humboldt State University in Northern California.  I continued in theater arts, but I also began studying film production.  While there, I entered the first two miniature pieces I did — a SUBWAY INTERIOR and a HOTEL ROOM — in the arts department student juried art show two years in a row, and I won first prize both years.  That was the first time I received any recognition for my work.
So was that when you decided to “become” an artist?
I never really decided to become an artist.  I moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to get into the film business doing miniature effects.  At some point a friend ran into a woman she’d met years before, Jacqueline Anhalt, who was an art dealer.  My friend happened to mention my hobby, and Jacquey said she’d like to see what I’d done.  So I brought the two pieces I had to her gallery on La Cienega, and she asked me if I wanted to do a show.  I was so naive about the whole thing that I said, “What do you mean by ‘do a show?’”  She told me, and I said, “Well, let me think about it.”  I left the gallery and the woman who’d helped me bring my stuff over there said, “You realize you just got offered a show at an established gallery, right?  I have friends who would kill for that opportunity.”  So I pulled off the road and found a phone booth and called and said, “I’ll do it.”  I locked myself in my studio and worked my butt off for a year, and in 1980 I showed 10 pieces at that gallery.  Then a friend in New York brought slides around to some galleries, and I had serious offers from two major galleries, so I moved back to New York.
Had you had any training by then in the various skills you use in your work — drafting, lighting, modeling?
Most of that stuff I’d just picked up on my own years before.  I learned how to do lighting when I was studying theater arts, and before that, when I was in the service, I went through 16 weeks of electrician’s school.  I was a shipboard electrician in the Navy, which is when I learned basic wiring.  I also learned quite a few tricks working in the film industry, doing visual effects.  What I did then was basic model building, and there were always new materials I had to learn how to work with.  When you see a building or a spaceship blow up in a movie or on TV, they’d have the model crew build it.  Or if they needed to create a place that didn’t exist, we’d build it as a miniature.  Even with all the CGI you see today, practical models are still used because sometimes they look better than CGI, and they can frequently be more cost-effective.
What other professional work have you done that relates to your art work?
I’ve worked for Disney Imagineering building models for theme park development.  I’ve built props and scenic elements for various film and TV productions.  I’ve done a lot of work on architectural models.  Although it’s not directly related to what I do, I’ve also worked as an extra for film and television — I was a patient on “ER” and a policeman in the movie “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In your own work, how do you decide on the content of a piece?
I will frequently think about a project for years before I start doing it; I thought about BROOKLYN ROOFTOP for maybe 10 years before the time was right to build it.  Another piece, TERMINAL DINER, was on the West Side of Manhattan.  I really loved that diner, and I loved the location.  The piece is pretty much the way it looks in real life.  Sometimes I’m attracted to the architecture of a place. TUBE BAR is a perfect example.  I passed that place every day in my travels.  It was so unique.  It was the same with VILLAGE CIGARS.  That was the first time I tried to build a place as it actually stands.
Is all of your work based on actual locations?
No.  It’s a combination of existing locations, details from other places and a lot from memory.  For instance, with TERMINAL DINER, the buildings to the left of the diner are accurate to what was standing there, but the whole scene to the right … By the time I got around to photographing it, the buildings to the right had been turned into a parking lot, so I came up with a new building on the right.  Many of the pieces are completely made-up locations. AAA DETECTIVE AGENCY would be an example of that.
What scale do you work in?
I usually work in ½ in = 1 foot scale, which is half the size of dollhouse scale.  The first few pieces I did were in dollhouse scale, but I decided to change to the smaller scale so I could build more intricate environments in the same-sized space.  I also find the smaller scale more “intimate.”  If I’m building a view out a window, that would be built at a smaller scale than the room interior to force the perspective.
Ultimately, though, scale is a means to an end, not the end itself, right?
Yes.  To me, the most important experience you take away from my work is the story.  I’m providing you with clues to a narrative, telling a story with minute details.  There are no people in these scenes, but so much of what is there are the things people have left behind — the graffiti, the trash, tips on a counter, a half-eaten hamburger.  The real impact of my work is not in how small everything is but in the stories these small things tell.
Take me through your process.
I’ll think about the piece for a long time, visualizing, problem-solving; by the time I get ready to start something, I’ve thought about it for months, if not years.  I’ll take photographs and do as much research as I can on the details of the location.  Then I’ll make a couple of scribbled thumb-nail sketches, and then I’ll start drafting out the scene on cardboard and build up a cardboard mock-up.  That’s when I check the sight lines and see where the walls are going to go and figure out if everything’s going to fit.  I’ll also determine where I’m going to hide lighting and how to make it accessible.  The piece has to be as simple as possible to disassemble so you can maintain the lighting, if necessary.  Once I get the mock-up the way I want it, I’ll start actually building sections of the piece.  Most of what I do is built out of plastic.  Sometimes I’ll just start tearing the mock-up apart and putting the pieces of plastic in place of the cardboard.
Where do you get your raw materials, and what sorts of tools do you use?  Do you use magnification to see what you’re doing?
I use wood, cardboard, paper, but again, most of what I do is made out of plastic, which I get from plastic-supply places.  Anything structural is made out of sheet acrylic, which is hard; anything that is detail is usually made out of styrene, which is a softer plastic you can cut with an X-Acto knife or a razor blade.  I’ll make some of the details out of metal, too, like brass hand railings, which have to be cut and soldered.  I generally use carpentry tools for the main construction.  There’s a whole world of smaller tools manufactured that are good for the detailing work.  I never use a magnifier because I find them too distracting to work with.
Do you prefer making some of the elements to others?
Well, some things are easier to make than others.  Flat planes are easier than curved shapes; I find it easier to make the architectural elements, rather than the props.  The two take a different set of skills.  And there’s less faking it with, say, a table than a wall.  That table is going to be more the focus of attention than the wall, so, in that sense, the walls are more forgiving.
How long does it take to complete a piece?
A major piece typically takes me anywhere from three to nine months. LUCKY SEVENS CASINO, which has a lot of fiber optics, took nine months.  I could have done BROOKLYN ROOFTOP, for example, in about three if I’d worked straight through.  I try to do six solid hours a day.  I used to work all night and sleep into the day; now I try to keep more normal hours.
Are there any shortcuts?  Do you ever just go out and buy a detail piece from a hobby shop?
Never.  I make everything — that’s one of my rules.  Though, as a matter of necessity, I’ve learned how to make a lot of the graphics in Photoshop.  You used to be able to get hundreds of different typefaces in transfer type, which came on a sheet.  You’d rub it off the sheet onto the model one letter at a time.  I’d get them in different sizes and all these fonts.  They just don’t make that much of it anymore because so much is done in Photoshop.  I’m still not 100 percent happy with Photoshop; it always looks flat to me.  Transfer type had a handmade quality I really liked, a certain depth.  If I was building a sign that said “To Subway,” with an arrow, I’d build the sign out of plastic, maybe one inch by half an inch, then get the appropriate-sized typeface and just rub it on a letter at a time.  The good thing about Photoshop is that you can reuse files.  Not much changes on a standard subway sign, but before Photoshop, I made probably 50 “To Subway” signs over the years.  Now I pull up the file that says “To Subway” and I can move the arrow around, make it “To Subway” to the left or “To Subway” to the right or whatever I need to do.  It’s kind of like making a mold for something.  After building, maybe, 75 fire hydrants over the years, I realized it was time to make a mold and cast the fire hydrant.
Do you even do all the lighting yourself?
I do all the incandescent, fluorescent and fiber-optic lighting.  What I don’t do myself is anything that involves solid-state circuitry.  That’s a different area of expertise.  The commissioned piece I’m working on now is going to have a lot of lights that “chase” and some that are sequenced to flash on and off.  I’ll design how the lighting should look but have a person proficient in electronics design the circuitry.
Let’s talk about what is not in these environments: Why don’t you depict people in your scenes?
When people appear in a miniature environment, your attention is automatically drawn to them because it’s so obvious they’re not real; their presence points to the fact that it’s an artificial environment.  Without the people there as markers of unreality, you can really get lost in the scene and formulate your own narrative.
Why do you think you’re drawn to the types of environments you create?
Writers have said that my work creates a safe way of being a voyeur.  There’s something mysterious and intriguing and even attractive about those environments, but I don’t know how comfortable most people feel in them in real life.  Creating them gives me a window into them but also allows me to maintain control over them; I can have the experience of having been to these places without having to confront the people who inhabit them.  It’s true that almost every piece I’ve ever done, in my mind, is a night scene.  I’m a night person, and I think there’s more potential for an interesting story at night.  A woman once asked me why I did these kinds of scenes.  I said, “What do you think I should be doing?”  She suggested cathedrals.  That sent a chill up my spine.  I thought, why would I want to do that?  I find these environments far more interesting than a lot of others.  They may not be pleasant, but there’s something about them … And I do feel a certain impulse to preserve some of our architectural past.  I find it offensive that there is little or no effort whatsoever to do that.  So many great old buildings have been bulldozed to make parking lots.  It’s unforgivable.
What do you get on a personal level from doing this work?
I get a real sense of satisfaction from it, a sense of accomplishment, especially after finishing a major piece.  Though I don’t think I’ve ever done a major piece where halfway through I didn’t say to myself, “What the fuck am I doing this for?” or “Am I going to be able to finish this piece?”  I find both the mental and physical work challenging.
Has anyone ever questioned your mental health?  It seems you’d need an obsessive/compulsive gene to do this.
No, but I’ve often gotten an interesting reaction from people who know me only through my work.  When they meet me for the first time, they shake my hand and look up at me and say, “You’re much bigger than I’d thought you’d be.”  I swear to God, I’ve heard it at least a dozen times.  That aside, I’ve always felt that whatever that impulse is that makes me want to do this, I try to keep it in my studio; the rest of my life isn’t that well organized or approached with that level of precision.  I take whatever that energy is — the careful planning and detailed thinking-through — and channel 98 percent of that into my work.  It may seem crazy, but somebody has to do it; it might as well be me.
Do you think your work falls into a particular school?
I consider it an extension of photorealism; the New York gallery I showed with for years, the Louis K. Meisel Gallery, was known for photorealist paintings.  But I’m not a true photorealist either.  The similarities are in the attention to detail and some of the subject matter.  I think when I first started doing this, there were maybe three of us working in miniature.  There are a few more now.
What other artists do you feel have influenced you?
[Photorealist painter] Richard Estes — I’ve always been drawn into his subject matter, and his attention to detail has definitely made an impression.  I think I’ve also been influenced by [assemblage artist] Joseph Cornell and [pop installation artist] Edward Kienholz.  A lot of people have picked up on the influence of [realist painter] Edward Hopper in my work as well.
How has working in such an unusual discipline affected your career?
One thing that has worked against me is the fact that photographs really don’t do justice to my work.  If you were to sit next to me while we went through a portfolio of my work, I’d have to explain what you were looking at, because of the hidden views.  I wouldn’t have to do that if I were a painter.  Having carved out this niche works to my advantage, though, in that a collector who’s brave enough to collect an unproven art form frequently likes my stuff because it’s different.  But when you look at the bottom line, a lot of collectors are conservative and don’t want to buy something they’re not sure of.  They’re wondering if my work will be a good investment.  I believe that attitude has held back the progression of art, but I understand it.
You certainly have your fans, though.
And I have found my work in collections where I’d never expect to see it.  I once went to the home of a collector to install a piece.  I walked into this huge Park Avenue apartment — it took up half a floor of one of those prewar buildings in Manhattan — and it was filled with these very traditional, museum-quality paintings.  I was wondering, where is this guy’s contemporary collection?  As it turned out, my piece was his contemporary collection; it was the only piece in that apartment made in the 20th century.  I felt pretty good about that.  And I’ve had a couple of museum shows, one at the New York State Museum in Albany, based on my connection to the culture of New York City, and a second one at the Museum of Miniatures in Los Angeles.
Aside from that woman who feels you should be replicating cathedrals, do people generally “get” what you’re doing?
I think my work is pretty straightforward.  Even though the narrative is in the eye of the beholder, I’m giving you a lot of information.  It’s not like, “What is Jackson [Pollock] up to now?”  On a couple of occasions the word “Lilliputian” has been used to describe my work, which I really hate.  I just can’t stand the word, and again, the fact that my work is in miniature is not the point; the miniature scale is the vehicle that gets youto the point, whatever that may be for the individual viewing the work.  The response I’m interested in is the one that settles in after the “wow factor” has worn off.  That’s when the piece starts to have an emotional impact.  I understand that my work is unusual and in some ways indefinable; people don’t know which box to put it in.  And I’ve fought with myself over the years, like, why couldn’t I be a painter like everybody else?  But, for better or worse, this is what I do.
Sculptures | Q&A | News | Contact | Home | Copyright ©2015 Alan Wolfson.

Alan Wolfson - Miniature Urban Sculptures